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Humor Your Tumor

This column is dedicated to all individuals (and their loved ones) who are now battling cancer, and to Survivors whose cancer is in remission. I’ll occasionally leave you with a joke. This will usually be related to cancer, or some other source of stress in our lives. If you’ve heard a joke along these lines that you love, and would like to see it made available to everyone in this column, please send it to me at HaHaRemedy@del.net.


Fall, 2002

 Paul E. McGhee, PhD

Using Humor to Cope:
Laughing in the Midst of Stress

 "Gentlemen, why don't you laugh? With the fearful strain that is upon me day and night, if I did not laugh I should die, and you need this medicine as much as I do."             

                     (Abraham Lincoln, during the Civil War)

In the book, One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest, McMurphy (played by Jack Nicholson in the film) says, "When you lose your sense of humor, you lose your footing." Another character says about McMurphy, "He knows you have to laugh at the things that hurt you, just to keep yourself in balance, just to keep the world from running you plumb crazy."

This is great wisdom from someone who lives in a psychiatric institution. Your sense of humor is one of the most potent tools you have to cope with those days when life seems determined to deal you enough stress to make you crazy. You have enough stress in dealing with your cancer on a day-to-day basis, so you certainly don't need extra sources of stress from your job and personal relationships.

Empowerment has become a major buzzword in corporations, as companies have recognized the value of granting more decision-making power to employees at all levels of the organization. Empowerment is just as important in taking control of your emotional reactions in on a day-to-day basis in connection with your cancer. While you never want to deny the reality of the issues you must deal with that stem from your cancer, there is real a real sense of exhilaration that comes from learning to use your sense of humor to pull yourself up by your "emotional boot-straps" on your down days.

The above quote from President Lincoln occurred when Lincoln read something to his advisors that he found very funny, but they didn't laugh, presumably because of the seriousness of the situation they were dealing with. Lincoln was convinced that it was precisely because the situation was so serious that he needed to laugh.

The same situation occurs with many cancer patients (and their family members), who simply cannot find the resources within them to laugh--because of the seriousness of the situation they or their loved one is dealing with. But just think of what daily immersion in a sobering, serious attitude does to the quality of your life. It is stifling and robs you of the opportunities for joy that a more upbeat, positive attitude brings.

In the March, 1999 article in Humor Your Tumor, I mentioned a woman with breast cancer who discovered the emotional trap her cancer had led her into. She had had a double mastectomy, and had two prosthetic breasts. Her story is worth repeating here, since it specifically deals with not allowing yourself to be overcome with "terminal seriousness" or negative emotion.

She lived in a house in the suburbs of Provo, Utah. One day, three weeks after her surgery, she went to her front porch to pick up her morning newspaper. As she bent over to pick it up, one of her breasts popped out. And the family dog, thinking this was a new toy, grabbed it and was running around the yard with it in his mouth. She ran after the dog, shouting, "You come back here with my breast. You bring my breast back!" 

When she realized what she was saying, she stopped and looked around to see if anyone else was up that early and heard her. To her great relief, no one else was up. But when she realized what she had been shouting, and thought about what the neighbors would have thought had they heard her, she started laughing, and couldn't stop. She was laughing so hard that tears were coming out of her eyes.

When she finally stopped laughing, she realized that was what had been missing from her life. She could not remember laughing since her diagnosis of cancer. And she was determined to never let another day go by without having some laughter in her life. She realized that she needed to laugh, even when she didn't feel like laughing. The laughter itself boosted her spirits and made it easier to face the tough days.

She and Abraham Lincoln both recognized the power of humor to help them get through the difficult situation they were dealing with. As you look at your own life since your diagnosis with cancer, consider the effect this has had on your ability to ease into that playful attitude that is so important for finding humor in your own everyday life. If your sense of humor has abandoned you, go back right now to the September, 1999 article in the Humor Your Tumor archives and start making the effort to boost your humor skills.

[Adapted from P.E. McGhee Health, Healing and the Amuse System: Humor as Survival Training, Kendall-Hunt, 1999. To order call 800-228-0810.]

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Click HERE for additional articles by Dr. McGhee on Humor and health/coping.

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